In the fall of 1996, the Rev. Dennis Dease spoke to the faculty at the University of St. Thomas about the importance of fostering a climate in which all members of "this increasingly diverse community" would feel welcome and could learn and grow. He challenged faculty and, for that matter, everyone else on campus to carry out the words of Pope John Paul II, who has written that a Catholic university should be characterized "by mutual respect, sincere dialogue and protection of the rights of individuals."
Five years later, the president of St. Thomas again used the fall academic convocation to address issues of climate and diversity. He again quoted the papal document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and he again reminded his audience of the need to help others "to achieve wholeness as human persons."
He shared his gratitude "for the positive and enthusiastic way in which this community has responded" to his earlier remarks, and he thanked the faculty for its leadership.
Then he paused and added, "Even so, however, the results have been mixed."
For the next 30 minutes, Dease reviewed the results of the 2000 climate study, which concluded that while the majority of students and employees have positive perceptions and experiences, a troubling number report negative perceptions and experiences. He also shared the results of his own informal research, which included conversations or encounters with students who were of color, non-Catholic, women or homosexual, and he admitted that he found himself "disturbed and haunted" by some of their observations.
Two questions must be asked in light of all these findings, Dease told the faculty in quoting from the climate study:
• To what extent does the St. Thomas community acknowledge there are members of this community for whom the climate is negative?
• To what extent will the St. Thomas community respond to the concerns of those who experience the climate as negative?
One full academic year later, it’s safe to say the jury is still out on whether the St. Thomas community has acknowledged and responded as Dease urged. An ambitious initiative is under way to make St. Thomas a more open, engaging and accepting university, but even the leaders of this effort admit it will take years to accomplish.
St. Thomas magazine talked with more than 30 people about the climate study and diversity, especially as related to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation. Our findings mirrored those of Dease’s assessment last fall — the results indeed are "mixed." As several people noted in separate interviews, it is like a toddler taking two steps forward and one backward. The will is there and progress is made, but it can be maddeningly slow at times.
Dease is pleased with the progress this year. He is grateful for the affirming response to his convocation remarks and that so many faculty and staff see diversity as a natural part of the university’s mission. He likes to emphasize diversity as a core value.
"Most people realize our diversity enriches the learning environment for students," he said. "Many of them come from homogeneous communities, and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for what will be a much more diverse society and workplace."
To Dr. Judith Dwyer, executive vice president, there can be no turning away from addressing diversity issues because they are integral to Catholic culture and intellectual thought in pursuing the common good, respecting the dignity of others and promoting social justice.
"We need to provide an educational context that is real and whole in order to celebrate the richness of different cultures and to present an environment for students that prepares them for life after St. Thomas," she said. "If we fail to do so, then we do a disservice to our students."
Defining diversityPerhaps the most difficult issue in coming to grips with creating a more diverse campus is defining the very word itself. Everybody, it seems, has a different definition of diversity.
The official definition, as adopted by the University Diversity Steering Committee in 1997, is that "the word ‘diversity’ describes a broad range of issues that include differences in race, ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, economic status, sexual orientation and religion."
Greg Roberts, an African American who has served as vice president of student affairs for nine years, realizes it is easy to broadly define diversity, and he thinks it’s appropriate that so many different definitions exist. He has his own.
"I think of it as diversity of thought," he said. "It’s how we prepare our students to deal with the world. Because of our Catholic tradition, there also is a pursuit of truth. We should not be fearful of discussing all aspects in that pursuit of truth. We need to challenge students to think critically, and as a result we will have a community of diverse thinkers in the pursuit of truth."
Roberts believes St. Thomas has made progress over the past decade, although he is troubled by the "ups and downs" that naturally occur because so many people — especially students — are here for such a short time. The past year has had its distractions as well, with budget cuts and layoffs in the summer followed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Everybody understands the climate survey results and genuinely wants to embrace being a more diverse community," Roberts said. "They just don’t know exactly how to do it, and where to begin. The learning curve will be steep."
One of the people addressing that learning curve is Nancy McGrath, who became an assistant to Dwyer in 1999 after working in Campus Ministry for eight years. As part of its strategic direction on diversity, St. Thomas created an Office for Mission and Diversity last fall. Dwyer appointed McGrath to additional duties as interim special assistant for diversity and Sister Margaret Wick as interim special assistant for mission. (Wick also is interim director of institutional research and planning at St. Thomas and former president of Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa.)
McGrath sees a fundamental need for people both to understand and appreciate differences, whether they are of gender, race, socio-economic status "or even of experiences — of those who grew up on the farm or in the city." She also sees a need to develop "cultural competence" among students so they can succeed in an increasingly global communuity.
This would be a daunting task under normal circumstances, Mc-Grath said, but it’s all the more difficult given the spectrum of opinions regarding diversity. She points to two written comments from people who responded to the climate survey two years ago:
• "Diversity doesn’t really matter to me. I didn’t come here to be diverse. I came here to get a good education that would prepare me for the future."
• "My rather harsh remarks on racism, sexism and homophobia at St. Thomas are not specific to this environment; they are larger cultural issues that we, as a predominantly white, male, heterosexual community, bring with us. I believe Catholic social teaching and scripture — as with that of other wisdom traditions — call us to face and transform these cultural ‘sins.’ I think we have the spirit, the intelligence and will as a community — with direction — to deal with these."
Those thoughts certainly were evident last spring during a rally to support a hate-free campus. One student told of a broken car window and messages that she wasn’t welcome because she was Muslim, and others described discrimination related to race and sexual identity. The students called on the administration to adopt a series of resolutions to improve the climate.
A five-year diversity planOne initiative to deal with those concerns, as well as issues in the climate study, is a five-year diversity plan which will be put into place this fall. McGrath expects the plan will outline the university’s vision and will be coordinated with efforts related to curriculum, faculty and staff development, student retention and support services for students from underrepresented groups.
A diversity study group appointed as part of St. Thomas’ strategic planning process recommended two years ago that a comprehensive plan be developed. It would "extend the value of diversity beyond a few isolated, partitioned individuals and groups, thereby making ‘someone else’s problem’ a challenge of the entire St. Thomas community," the group wrote. "St. Thomas will be proactive rather than reactive in meeting the challenges of a diverse society." The group also recommended the creation of McGrath’s position and an annual symposium on best diversity practices in higher education.
As study group chair, Dr. Jean Giebenhain, who also chairs the undergraduate Psychology Depart-ment, said it looked at best practices at other institutions to determine how St. Thomas might address important issues. She knows the will exists to develop a plan, but she worries if people will have enough time on top of their other duties and if there will be sufficient resources to devote to issues such as one of her favorites — providing more English language programs for those whose native language isn’t English.
"There is some skepticism about another ‘plan’ — and whether it will make a difference and result in any long-term change," McGrath said. "We have developed plans and strategies for years and have offered programs and opportunities for learning, but we have not addressed systemic change and attitudinal change."
A critical difference this time, McGrath said, is that the board of trustees and senior administration have committed themselves philosophically to a far-reaching, proactive effort and that the university will provide the resources to achieve the goals.
"It’s both an educational endeavor and a moral endeavor," she said. "It has become an issue of, ‘We have a problem. What are we going to do about it?’ The plan will help."
In the meantime, new programs continue to be developed.
A recent example is the SafeZone Project, in which 20 faculty and staff volunteer time to talk with students and provide assistance to cope with everyday issues related to diversity.
Another is the PLEDGE (President’s Leadership, Education and Diversity Group Endeavor) program. It has trained more than 40 student ambassadors this year to promote respect and awareness of individual differences through peer education activities such as presentations in classrooms and residence halls.
Faculty are reviewing changes in the diversity course requirement for undergraduate students. Critics say too many courses (60) meet the criteria and that some courses don’t focus enough on diversity issues. Some students take courses that fit a core or major requirement and find out afterward that the course also fit the diversity requirement.
"We would be better off with a smaller number of courses focused on concepts that we associate with diversity, such as serving the common good and social justice," said Dr. Thomas Connery, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Climate study results The 2000 climate study is the most-cited way to measure the problem. Forty-five percent of faculty and staff and 23 percent of students responded. Findings included:
• People who were gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual reported negative perceptions and experiences more than any other group.
• People of color reported more negative perceptions and experiences than whites.
• Those who had no religious affiliation or are not Christian were more likely to report negative perceptions and experiences than Catholics and other Christians.
• Women were more likely to report negative perceptions and experiences than men.
• Nearly half of the undergraduate student respondents felt unwelcome or excluded based on their socio-economic status.
Within the written comments section, the issues that generated the most responses dealt with diversity and the university’s Catholic identity. The responses varied greatly, from assertions that "St. Thomas should hold to the Catholic mission and traditions" to charges that the university "seems to want to confine what we learn to what is acceptable in the Catholic doctrine."
Dwyer addressed this issue last September when she announced the creation of the Office for Mission and Diversity, saying the climate study underscored the ambiguity surrounding Catholic identity at St. Thomas. "The unfortunate conclusion that some within the community have reached is that diversity and Catholic identity or Catholic mission are inherently in conflict," she wrote. "A commitment to diversity is a constitutive part of our mission as a Catholic, urban university, not a separate issue."
Wick agrees. She arrived at St. Thomas in January 2000 and has an interesting perspective based on her work at Briar Cliff and throughout Catholic higher education.
"Is St. Thomas diverse?" she asked. "Yes, although perhaps less so than some others because of our geography. We may not look like Chicago Loyola, Fordham or Georgetown, which are more racially and culturally diverse. But we are more balanced in our academic and co-curricular programs than most others."
What’s essential to Wick is ongoing reflection and discussion. "Without it," she said, "you drift."
Race and Ethnicity: Class, socio-economic status are root of many issues
A poster of the late W.E.B. DuBois, a renowned African American writer and educator, hangs on the wall of Dr. Kerry Frank's office in Opus Hall, and the inscription serves as both a reminder and an inspiration in his daily work.
"There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race or poverty," the DuBois quote reads. "But with all we accomplish all, even peace."
The "with all" reference puzzled a visitor, and Frank, an associate professor in the School of Education, offered an explanation.
"With all means by understanding all," he said, "Those factors are not — and should not — be restrictions or limitations."
But as one reads the climate study, the issues of ethnicity and socio-eco-nomic status clearly are factors, if not restrictions or limitations, in the lives of many undergraduate students of color. They often feel uncomfortable on a campus where they comprise only 10.3 percent of the population.
This is telling in "The Price of a Good Education: The Black Experience at St. Thomas," a video produced last year by the Multicultural Student Services office. Several students and alumni speak candidly that while they received a good education at St. Thomas, they also felt isolated and the victims of stereotypes.
"It seems like it’s them and you," Marcus Benner ’94, a criminal justice major and African American who went on to become a police officer, says in the video. "People remind you every day at St. Thomas that you’re different."
Climate study results show that students of color feel far more negative perceptions and experiences than whites. The issues are acute for African American students, who make up 2 percent of the undergraduate population. There are 5.5 percent Asian Americans, 2.1 percent Hispanics and 0.7 percent Native Americans (plus 1.2 percent international students). Graduate numbers are 4 percent Asian American, 3.3 percent African American, 1.2 percent Hispanic and 0.5 percent Native American (plus 8.5 percent international).
Opinions vary on how much emphasis to place on enrolling more students of color. A resolution passed by an ad hoc student committee last spring called for 18 percent students of color within three years. Dr. Raj Sethuraju, associate director of Multicultural Student Services, believes between 20 and 25 percent may be necessary "so they don’t feel isolation, especially in the classroom."
Others say the region’s changing demographics over the next 20 years, with a decline in the white college-age population and growth among Hispanics and African Americans as well as immigrant Hmong and Somalis, make it inevitable St. Thomas will enroll more students of color. St. Paul’s minority population, for example, increased from 18 percent to 33 percent in the 1990s, and students of color comprise two-thirds of the public school district’s population.
Freshman Lolu Allison, who was born in Nigeria, was surprised by the smaller number of students of color when she arrived on campus and wonders if white students "really want to step out of their comfort zone" and become closer to her.
Junior Krizza Balderrama, a Hispanic from California, agrees that problems are related both to "numbers and a mindset." She is concerned that while St. Thomas depicts itself as diverse in its marketing materials, "it’s not true. It becomes very political — that we need to make this school look good. It feels corrupt at times."
How will St. Thomas deal with these kinds of issues? People look first to senior administrators such as Roberts and Alice Grider, director of Multicultural Student Services since 1996, but they are quick to say it isn’t their job alone.
"This office was struggling with its identity when I arrived here," Grider said. "We’ve made progress, but we didn’t do that alone. I came in with a new model and said that every office was accountable for helping meet the goal of improving the lives of students of color. We said, ‘Our job is not to do your job. It’s to complement what you do in your job.’ "
Class and socio-economic status are at the root of many issues, and as a result Roberts doesn’t like to generalize that problems and challenges are the same for every student of color. For example, he said, an African American student who grew up in Woodbury, a largely white suburb, will adjust more easily to St. Thomas than one who attended a predominantly African American high school in north Minneapolis. Frank also points out a high correlation between race and class.
Grider’s goal has been to provide a welcome atmosphere for all students, including whites. She recalls a diversity workshop discussion several years ago with the ACC president, who was white, and how "he began to ask how I defined power. I got him in a safe place with me, and from that day on he practically lived in this office. … Our job is to get you to realize your allies are all around you even if you don’t recognize them because they aren’t the same color."
Another Grider goal is to improve retention of undergraduate students of color, and she is pleased with the progress. The overall retention rate for first-year students dropped from 86.9 percent in 2000 to 83.8 percent in 2001, but among African Americans it increased from 60 percent to 84.6 percent. There also was an increase among Asian Americans (83.7 percent to 88.3 percent) but a drop among Hispanics (81.8 percent to 52.6 percent).
Those numbers come about through broad partnerships and special programs, Grider said. Examples: She has worked with the International Education Center to involve more students of color in study abroad programs, Campus Ministry on retreats and the Center for Student Leadership and Activities on joint programs. The REAL (Reaching Excellence in Academics and Leadership) Project, in which 15 students of color spend six weeks on campus the summer before their first year to become better acclimated to St. Thomas, also has been effective.
She wants to work more with recent immigrants such as Somalis, who are the region’s fastest growing immigrant group. She wants to award more scholarships to students of color. She wants to develop services for graduate students. And she wants the students of color organization HANA to focus more on supporting students of color than sponsoring programs.
Grider is the first to acknowledge her job has its ups and downs, and she recalled how during one difficult period she was asked by someone, "Why do you stay?"
"I looked at her and said, ‘Eyes on the prize. I know we can do good things here.’ We have, and we can do many more."
Roberts feels the same way. He points to St. Thomas’ sponsorship of three charter schools for students of color, its student internship program with Penumbra Theatre and its Collaborative Urban Educator program, in which people of color earn their teaching licenses, as excellent examples of community engagement.
"But we need to stick with it," he said. "We can’t back off if problems emerge. Are we going to ‘walk the walk?’ We have the potential to be outstanding and we can rise to the occasion as long as people make a more genuine and a more consistent commitment."
Frank hopes the norm one day will be a simple one — "that people will have places to go ... that they will be listened to and dealt with in a fair manner ... that they will not be encouraged to conform or they’ll be punished."
Perhaps then, and only then, will St. Thomas be able to live out the words of W.E.B. DuBois on the poster in Frank’s office: "But with all we accomplish all, even peace."
Religion: University can benefit from diverse religious traditions St. Thomas has long studied and debated exactly what it means to be a "Catholic" university, and there is no shortage of definitions because people who identify themselves as "Catholic" have widely varying beliefs, interests and needs.
About 53 percent of undergraduate students and 34 percent of graduate students identify themselves as Catholic. Lutherans make up 19 percent of the undergraduate and 20 percent of the graduate populations. No other faith tradition has more than 3 percent.
Two issues that arise among non-Catholics, especially students, are how comfortable they feel at a Catholic university and the lack of opportunities to explore and practice their own faiths.
Caitlin Nelson, a freshman from New Ulm, was born in South Korea and adopted as an infant by a white Lutheran family. She had little exposure to Catholicism before arriving at St. Thomas. She found the experience "challenging" in the beginning and e-mailed her pastor at home on a number of issues, but gradually became more comfortable.
"I like going to a Catholic school," she said. "Most of my friends are Catholic and are involved in Campus Ministry. I go to Mass every Sunday."
Nelson would like to see more programs and services on campus for students of other religions "if time and resources are available," but not at the expense of those available to Catholics because they make up the majority of the population.
Junior Chau Pham, a Zen Buddhist from Plymouth, was born in Minnesota to Vietnamese parents who immigrated in the 1970s. Less than 1 percent of St. Thomas students identify themselves as Buddhist, and Pham found no place on or close to campus to worship. Her family is a member of the Phat An Temple in Roseville.
Pham doesn’t object to the university’s theology requirement of three courses because it has allowed her to learn more about Catholicism, but she wishes the curriculum were broader. She also would like St. Thomas to provide more information about places to worship in the area.
"There needs to be more world religion courses — not just those dealing with Christianity," she said. "There also isn’t enough of a support network for anyone outside of Christianity. I had to do that on my own, and I found people on campus who are Buddhist."
The experiences of Nelson and Pham reflect to a certain degree the issues raised in the climate study. The Rev. Jeff Huard, director of Campus Ministry, knows his office in particular must provide more for non-Catholic students and to be ecumenical whenever possible.
"We are a principle-driven university that believes in the dignity of the person and the need for charity," he said. As Catholic as St. Thomas is, he believes there is "a great deal in common with other religions, and we try to handle the differences with care."
Huard recalled how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drew together people of all faiths. The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas was full that evening as students from Christian and Muslim traditions spoke about the need to respect all people and value human life.
Dr. Laureen Hamdan, who teaches psychology, said the events of Sept. 11 led to a greater understanding of Islam because people wanted to learn more about it. Raised a Catholic in western Minnesota, Hamdan converted to Islam when she was 20 and finds significant the challenges facing her and her colleagues.
"How much can one change a student’s beliefs and attitudes in four or five years?" she asked. "I understand that’s part of a university’s job, but you must realize they come in with certain attitudes based on the environment they grew up in. You can’t eliminate all prejudices, but you address them and hope they (students) will be more open-minded."
Outreach efforts can help, too. Campus Ministry sponsors more than a dozen retreats during the school year, many at the Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, and they are ecumenical in nature. Christmas, Hannukah and Ramadan coincided toward the end of the fall semester, providing opportunities to discuss many faith traditions. The meditation room in Common Ground, a St. Thomas-owned house on Summit Avenue, was used by Muslims during Ramadan.
Huard hopes to hold more open forums to discuss faith issues and will continue to work with affiliated programs such as Volunteers in Action and VISION (Volunteers In Service Internationally Or Nationally) to sponsor programs that make a difference in one’s spiritual life.
"The framework is in place," he said. "From a Campus Ministry perspective, I am proud of the work we do. Can we improve? Absolutely. Can we develop more opportunities? Yes, and we will."
Wick is impressed with the breadth of St. Thomas’ Catholicity, including majors in theology, Catholic studies, and justice and peace studies and co-curricular efforts that focus on community service and social justice.
"There’s a richness to how St. Thomas is Catholic that you don’t find at most other colleges," she said. "I remain amazed at how engaged we are in the community and how that reflects the Gospel. We learn about faith in the classroom, but if I am a student, how do I apply that in the community and the way I live my life? I can tutor kids or I can go to a soup kitchen, and when I’m done I sit down and ask myself, ‘What did I learn at that soup kitchen?’ "
Wick is convinced the Catholic Church is more diverse today than ever. The challenge is more difficult for a university than a parish or even an elementary school, she said, because they can focus on serving their mostly Catholic constituents while "we have such a diverse population with so many different needs, and we have a responsibility to turn out citizens for the world."
Deborah Savage, who develops programs in the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas, shares Wick’s sentiment that the university is more diverse than it may realize. She feels it is important to keep in mind the broader mission of the Catholic Church.
"Catholics are expected to engage in fruitful discussion with persons from every persuasion," she said. "If we are to maintain our Catholic identity, we must welcome and be open to persons of all religions and beliefs. This does not mean that we must agree with all that they think or do because not every viewpoint has equal merit. But every person does."
More open and respectful atmosphere sought by women
More than half of the students, 58 percent of the staff and 38 percent of the full-time faculty at St. Thomas are women. These women hold influential positions as well, including that of executive vice president; 40 percent of academic deans, directors and senior administrators are women, as are a third of the undergraduate department chairs.
Yet Dr. Debra Petersen says she hears one observation over and over on campus from women with whom she deals as director of the Luann Dummer Center for Women and as an associate professor of communication:
"This campus still feels so male."
That observation is borne out in the climate study, where women were more likely to report negative perceptions and experiences than men. Some female students, faculty and staff felt more unwelcome or excluded because of their gender than men; the same findings occurred in response to whether they had been discriminated against because of their gender.
Some undergraduate students have told Petersen stories about anti-women references in classes, "and in some cases they were clearly silenced by professors," she said. "There is talk among women about which courses not to take and which professors to avoid. I’m sure the same can be said on the flip side (male students and female professors) but it’s not nearly as prevalent."
Katie McNamara, 22, a senior who has a double major in psychology and women’s studies, hasn’t had that kind of experience but is concerned controversial issues receive only "lip service." For example, she wishes St. Thomas would officially recognize a student pro-choice group on campus because it does recognize the Human Life Alliance, which opposes abortion.
"This is a university, and we should be allowed to debate issues," said McNamara, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work at Tulane University this fall. "We need more forums. There isn’t enough dialogue. Knowledge really is power, and if you inform people and make them more aware of issues, it can make a difference in their lives."
Bridget Burk also hasn’t witnessed any intentional gender criticism in the classroom, but she wants more flexibility on issues such as attendance policies. As a divorced mother, she has missed classes when her 5-year-old son has been sick, and some professors have not been sympathetic.
"I’d like to see changes in welcoming student parents," said Burk, a 27-year-old junior who is majoring in English, holding down two part-time jobs and an unpaid internship, and studying for law school exams. "I can’t get housing (on campus) for myself and my son. In advocating for student-parent issues, I have run into this attitude of, ‘We don’t have a need.’ Well, we do have a need — 100 undergraduate students are parents trying to finish their studies."
Burk gives St. Thomas credit for establishing a child development center several years ago, enrolling her son there until he began full-day kindergarten this year. The center offers discount rates to students with children.
One way that St. Thomas addresses women’s issues is through efforts led by the women’s center, which was founded in 1993 as a result of an estate gift from Dummer, an English professor.
The center sponsors programs such as an annual lecture during Women’s History Month and serves as a gathering place for the University Committee on Women and other organizations. The center has a growing women’s art collection and sponsored two exhibits this year — "Celebrating Women" and "The Myth That is True," on Native American women’s art. Those exhibits were done in partnership with departments such as Art History or the Sacred Arts Festival.
As influential as the center is, Petersen agrees with McNamara that significant work remains to encourage discussion of controversial issues and to explore issues related to "liberal" and "radical" feminism in light of the demands on women raising families.
"The generic definition of liberal feminism is knocking on the door or the glass ceiling and saying, ‘Let me in,’ " Petersen said. "The generic definition of radical feminism is let’s re-create the system — that it’s not advantageous just to get women into key positions. Maybe the systems don’t need to be blown up, but they need to be re-examined in terms of what’s best for the individual and her family."
The Women’s Studies program is an interdisciplinary major that looks at societal issues from a female perspective. McNamara, for example, has taken Psychology of Women, Intercultural Communication and Anatomy of Violence courses as well as a capstone senior seminar.
"We offer courses that fulfill the women’s studies requirement and influence the curriculum at large," said Dr. Jill Manske, program director and an associate professor of biology. "Some people say that’s feminizing the curriculum — and to me, that’s a positive thing. We don’t want the entire curriculum to be feminist, but that it reflect the role of women and of gender."
The program has about five majors and 15 minors, and many other students take courses as electives. Manske hopes both to develop more women’s studies courses that can be taken by freshmen and sophomores and to do a better job of marketing the program.
"Women’s studies is truly an academic discipline," she said, "and not an advocacy group or a consciousness-raising group. In some ways it’s at the point where environmental studies was in the 1970s — it’s growing up beyond social action or people just being ‘tree huggers.’ "
The bottom line in all of this for faculty such as Manske and Peterson and students such as McNamara and Burk is to create a more open and respectful atmosphere. Maybe then, Petersen added, the campus won’t feel "so male."
Sexual Orientation: University seeks to offer a safe, inclusive environment
Dr. Robert Miller remembers the day he told a St. Thomas audience that he is gay.
Provost Charles Keffer held a forum during the winter of 1992 to discuss "affectional preference" at St. Thomas. Miller, who had joined the English Department as a professor the previous fall, went to listen. A woman quoted the Book of Leviticus and said that while stoning homosexuals to death was "a little extreme," people "like that" had no place at a Catholic university.
"After giving my name, I responded to her arguments and concluded by stating, ‘I’m a person like that,’ and I had reason to believe I was welcome at St. Thomas. The room got very quiet for awhile. When the meeting was over, Charlie walked over to my table and shook hands with me. He simply was introducing himself, but the public nature of that gesture at that moment conveyed a sense of support for which I was deeply grateful."
Miller’s story — of rejection and acceptance — is familiar in that he is not the only person who has struggled in dealing with the sensitive issue of homosexuality at a Catholic university. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says homosexual acts "are contrary to the natural law" and "under no circumstances can they be approved," but also says homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity." Some people call this a "love the sinner but hate the sin" philosophy.
Miller has mixed feelings about what has happened with sexual orientation issues during his decade at St. Thomas. He applauds the efforts of Dease and Dwyer to create a more tolerant environment, including support for the English Department in 1999 when it chose Heaven’s Coast, a memoir about the death of a gay man with AIDS, as the freshman common text.
But Miller also feels efforts fall short and that homosexuals generally are uncomfortable with the climate at St. Thomas. Forty percent of undergraduate students, including 73 percent of homosexual students, who responded to the climate survey disagreed with the statement, "In general, the St. Thomas community is accepting of people from various sexual orientations."
Students still make too many homophobic remarks in public places such as the Grill, Miller said, recalling how he overheard a male student ask the others at his table if they wanted to go out that night and do some "fag-bashing." He also worries about safety issues in residence halls; in October 1999, anti-gay graffiti appeared in Ireland Hall.
Last spring, an ad hoc student committee asked the administration to officially recognize a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) group and to authorize representation on the student ACC. The administration would not agree to such recognition because of the church’s position and concerns a GLBT group could evolve into advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle. But the university did recognize Allies, a new group that started last fall and includes heterosexual as well as homosexual students.
About 50 students are on Allies’ e-mail list, and up to half are active members. The group meets to discuss issues and has held events such as movie nights, said senior co-chairs John Sellner, who is gay, and Mandy Rios, who is heterosexual.
"St. Thomas has a stigma about GLBT issues," said Sellner, who will graduate in May after three years with a degree in English. "The stigma is that if you are ‘out’ as a homosexual on campus, bad things will happen to you. For people who are not comfortable with their sexuality, that holds them back — and it holds back St. Thomas, too."
Despite this stigma, Sellner has found that most people at St. Thomas accept him as a gay. "I don’t think the atmosphere is as bad as it is made out to be," he said. "You always will run into people who will say bad things about the atmosphere because they are poorly informed."
Rios became involved in Allies because she felt a need to show support for homosexual students. She is a political science major, served as vice president of the ACC last year and is an event planner this year for St. Thomas Activities and Recreation.
Allies has been a positive force in that it has involved heterosexual students in an important issue, she said, whereas they likely would not have been active in a GLBT group. She hopes membership grows and the group can have an impact.
Dr. Rob Riley, a 1985 St. Thomas alumnus and an economics professor since 1991, has seen some progress in terms of accepting homosexuals on campus. Riley is gay and advised a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual students in the mid-1990s.
"Ninety percent of students, faculty and even parents are moderate or progressive on the issue," he said. "There’s not a lot of animosity from those who care. But the other 10 percent can be vocal. That’s not a problem for me personally, but it can be for those people who feel their livelihoods and jobs might be on the line because of their sexual orientation."
As a result, many homosexuals choose to remain in the closet. Riley estimates that only one out of 10 homosexual students are out, and the number could be closer to one out of 20. He agrees that Allies is valuable because it broadens participation and understanding among heterosexuals, but he laments the lack of a GLBT group means many homosexuals "don’t have their own space to hash out personal issues and situations."
At the same time, however, Riley calls himself a "pragmatist" and realizes the balancing act for a Catholic university. Like Miller, he appreciates the firm message of the need for acceptance from Dease and Dwyer and their support when Heaven’s Coast became an issue.
"That was a painful time in a way, but a lot of positive experiences came out of it, as well as a new understanding," Riley said. "Students showed themselves to be good role models for the entire institution on how to deal with the issue in an intelligent manner. I was proud of St. Thomas."